Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2019 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity, Winchester

Tonight, from the Gospel according to Luke, we hear the same familiar story that we hear each year on this night: the story of Jesus’ birth.

The story of the Word made flesh is the story of God infiltrating humanity. The creator unites with the created in a miraculous new way. Heaven and earth come together. God and humankind are made one.

Throughout Luke’s narrative we see humanity and divinity converging in surprising ways.

To begin with, it’s census time. Mary and Joseph are headed to Bethlehem, the City of David, to be counted. As obedient subjects of the empire, they have set out to do what their emperor has asked them to do.

All along the rough and rocky road from Galilee to Judea the flesh of God kicks, and squirms, and fidgets, and turns in the womb of the young bride-to-be of a poor stone cutter from Nazareth.

Luke sets the scene very carefully. Upon their arrival in the hometown of the much-storied Israelite king, David, Mary prepares to give birth to a long-prophesied heavenly king, Jesus.

By portraying Jesus as the Son of David (through Joseph’s lineage), and the Son of God (through the Holy Spirit’s intervention and Mary’s faithful willingness), Luke cements the union of kings mortal and immortal.

Royal though the baby may be, God has chosen for him a modest passage into the world, by way of an unassuming teenage girl. God comes to earth for the first time not “robed in dreadful majesty” but swaddled in strips of cloth.

It’s not at all what we might expect. Not only does God deign to become human, but he identifies with the underprivileged in the process. These two realities are at odds. The everlasting father of the creation meets transient children of the empire. The Prince of Peace meets poor Palestinian travelers.

The surprises don’t end there.

Next we hear of “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Going about their evening routine they find themselves suddenly surrounded by God’s glory, face to face with an angel of the Lord.

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Once again polar opposites collide. Filthy, uneducated shepherds meet radiant, holy messengers who traffic in the very countenance of God.

The contrast between heavenly prophesy and earthly reality sharpens as angels relay the birth announcement of a pauper’s child. “You will find [him] wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

If God scandalizes us by becoming human, then he astounds us by becoming poverty-stricken in the process. Luke depicts God’s union with humanity by showing us that divine identification reaches to the lowest rung of the societal ladder.

This is clear: the revelatory new work that God is doing in Jesus happens even in the midst of the mundane and unflattering circumstances of human life. Jesus’ birth is proof positive that God wields his power for good in the places we least expect.

By offering such a vivid account of God’s impoverished entrance into the world, Luke enjoins us to fulfill our own role in bringing the redemptive love of Jesus to those who need it most.

God became one of us to redeem all of us. By virtue of that redemption, you are empowered to be an agent of God’s reconciliation; a participant in God’s unification of heaven and earth; a coworker in closing the gap between sin and grace.

The work of uniting humanity and divinity might sound intimidating, so it’s good to be clear. It’s not your job to bring heaven and earth together. God has already done that. But Christmas is your renewed opportunity to join in Jesus’ continuing ministry of reconciliation.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting heavenly affection with human concern by calling on the ill and the grieving. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting holy food with hungry souls by feeding a stranger.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting human action with heavenly righteousness by righting a wrong or correcting an injustice. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in transforming fear into peace, doubt into hope, loneliness into relationship by lighting a candle in the darkness.

This is the joy of Christmas: to have the chance to join in God’s redeeming work. Our Advent anticipation is over. Christmas is here. The Lord has come. All you have left to do is to receive the joy.

So receive it, dear ones, and then get to work, not to earn your way into heaven, but to show your gratitude for the place that God has already prepared for you there.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2019 – Matthew 1:18-25 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today of all days may be one to be brief. We’ll be back Tuesday evening. However, even though we’ll get a double dose this week, it’s important to spend some time with today’s gospel. 

This morning we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth story, a unique privilege of Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. We always read from Luke on Christmas Eve and from John the following morning, but it’s only during Advent of Year A that Matthew’s account creeps in on the Sunday closest to Christmas.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

First, there is an explanation of marital status. Mary and Joseph are engaged but not yet living together as husband and wife. In order to better understand their situation we must escape our present-day understanding of marriage.

Being engaged meant something very different in first-century Palestine than it does in 21st century Tennessee. There was no proposal on bended knee, no diamond ring. There was, however, a formal process of betrothal.

For all intents and purposes, after their betrothal, Mary and Joseph were what we might consider today to be husband and wife. They were bound by a very serious contractual obligation that was difficult to get out of, but they didn’t live together yet, so it wasn’t Facebook-official.

Next, Matthew gives us the scoop on Joseph. He’s a righteous man through and through. Moral. Ethical. A devout Jewish man with great respect for God’s teachings. When he learns that his wife/fiancé/betrothed is pregnant, what is he to do?

He could initiate a very public separation, humiliating Mary in the process, but he refuses. Instead, he devises a plan to take care of the situation quietly. There is a certain amount of compassion in Joseph’s response. Being a righteous man, he will obey God’s law, but he will not risk harming Mary’s reputation in the process.

Then enters an angel of the Lord. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” By naming the boy Jesus, Joseph will adopt him as his own, thereby grafting him onto David’s royal line. 

Joseph’s naming of Jesus is an important detail. Not only does it link Jesus to David’s lineage, but it is further evidence of Joseph’s compassion, identifying him as a man willing to take a leap of faith, trusting in God’s new plan for salvation.

Joseph’s faith is an example for us. He trusts that the solution he envisions is not necessarily the one God has in mind. Joseph may be a righteous man, but only God can tell us what true righteous is. True righteousness isn’t just about following God’s teachings. It’s also about joining in God’s plan for salvation, a plan that is established and renewed in Jesus Christ, God made flesh. [1]

In Joseph’s example we see how God can transform our understanding of salvation. The promise of the incarnation changes our hearts and minds, freeing us to respond gratefully to the work that God is doing in the world. [2]

God’s plan for salvation may have been set in motion when God became flesh, but it didn’t end there. The saving work of Jesus continues today in the ministry of all the baptized.

When the bishop visits on the Feast of the Epiphany, he will baptize a few of our own into the household of God. Through baptism we each take our place in the Church, the body of Christ on earth. 

As members of this body, our ministry is to reconcile all people to God. When we go about the world, fueled by prayer, scripture, bread, and wine, we engage in incarnational ministry, embodying acts of loving kindness made possible by God’s redemption of our flesh through Jesus Christ. 

Another way to say the same thing is this: God is with us. That sounds a lot like the prophecy that Isaiah delivered; it sounds a lot like the good news that Joseph believed; and it sounds a lot like the hope we cling to today, the same hope that carries us into Tuesday night and sustains us forever. 

[1] Thomas G. Long, Mathew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 14.

[2] Ibid., 12.